Surviving Community Change

Guest Blogger: Donelle Wolters
Entrepreneur from Atwood, KS

“It is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones who are most responsive to change.”–Unknown

What if we replace the word “species” in the quote with “rural communities?”

“It’s not the strongest rural communities that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones who are most responsive to change.”

Strength and intelligence are important, but I believe the biggest key to rural sustainability is the last part of the quote—the ability to respond to change.

Change is something we talk a lot about when it comes to rural communities. As young people return to communities and assume leadership positions and suggest doing something new or in a different way—well, the struggle for change becomes real.

Sometimes response to change is measured on the community itself—are they willing to embrace a few (or a lot!) of new ideas, or prefer to do things they way they have always been done?

It’s easy to “place blame” for lack of progressiveness on the community. I believe that response to change also needs to factor in how the young, new leaders approach the idea of change within a community. What steps can we as individuals take to help community members and organizations be more open to something new or different?

When I moved to a small town, population 1,200, a few years ago, I immediately got involved in some organizations. I was excited to “dream” about what could be done differently and how I could share ideas and strategies I had experienced.  What I quickly realized was the “bull-in-the-china-shop-approach” maybe isn’t the most effective way to implement change! My over-zealous excitement was sometimes met with resistance, some doubt and even a little discouragement.

As I analyzed what I could do as a new leader to influence change, I realized there was a need to refine the approach. And I believe this can be true for many young leaders within communities.

Before moving to a small town, I was involved in youth leadership development and training. One of the basic concepts I learned and taught focused on audience engagement. In order to keep people’s attention and bring them along with you in a workshop, speech or presentation, it is important to “change their state.”  That simply means find ways to engage them throughout the presentation. This can be influenced in three ways:

  • What They Think—ask questions, provide interesting facts and information; engage their brains
  • What They Feel—appeal to emotion; may be through stories, examples, and finding what they are passionate about
  • What They Do—physical movement or activity

All three of these strategies get audience members involved, sparks their attention and engages them in the experience.

I believe we can apply this same facilitation strategy to ourselves as young leaders influencing change in communities: we have to approach the community and organizations like they are an audience. When we “change their state” as individuals and organizations, the more likely we will work together to achieve long-term change in the community.

How do we do that? As young leaders, we need to actively seek out information from people in the community:

  • What People in the Community Think—ASK QUESTIONS!  The best way to rally people behind an idea is to ask questions and get input. This also helps you understand the history and tradition of how things developed.  I discovered that when I ask questions like, “What’s the reason the schedule is like this?” the answers are, “because we’ve always done it like this.” That leads to a realization from community members that maybe we could try something new.
  • What People in the Community Feel—LISTEN! Sometimes it’s too easy to come in with our best ideas without really listening to others. When we listen, we learn what is important to people and what connects with them on an emotional level. And then we can engage those individuals in the process of change.
  • What People in the Community Do—ASK THEM TO DO SOMETHING. Many times we think people aren’t excited about change, when in reality, they simply want to be asked to be involved. Ask individuals to be part of a new project based on their skills and talents.

If we want communities to be responsive to change, I believe we need to approach that with purpose and perspective. When we consider what communities think, feel and do, we are more likely to work together and achieve long-term growth and sustainability.

Donelle Wolters.jpg

A special thanks to Donnie for sharing her thoughts!


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